Cameron County and Port Isabel named in suit; Wrongful death lawsuit alleges confusion among officers

A wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of a Port Isabel man who died after a deputy constable allegedly confused him for a suspect and placed him in a choke hold detailed the family’s chance encounter with law enforcement in late 2017.

The case, filed on behalf of Rafael Vasquez, Sr. by two family members and the administrator of his estate, was transferred into the federal court system in Brownsville last week. The suit was filed in the 103rd state District Court on Dec. 6 of last year, according to state court records, and was officially moved to the federal court system on Feb. 5.

According to an initial complaint filed at the state level, Vasquez and his wife Rosaura Cepeda Vasquez, both of Laguna Heights, were leaving their residence to get their son, Marc Anthony Vasquez, a hamburger at the Whataburger located in Port Isabel.

The complaint stated that the family noticed a young man fleeing from a Cameron County Precinct 1 deputy constable. The suspect was exiting the Laguna Market convenience store located at the corner of Highway 100 and Adams Avenue in Laguna Heights, according to the document.

The summary claimed that the couple exited their vehicle to help. Mrs. Vasquez caught and detained the suspect momentarily before he escaped her grip and continued to run, according to the complaint.

The summary claimed that the deputy was then able to catch the suspect, who slipped and fell on the wet grass of the front yard and was face down on his stomach trying to hide both of his hands under his chest.

Vasquez, Sr. got on top of the suspect to control him and help the deputy pull the suspect’s left hand out, according to the document. It specified that a second child named Rafael Vasquez, Jr. arrived to assist, immediately getting on the ground, face down, to help pull out the suspect’s other hand.

Meanwhile, the complaint stated Mrs. Vasquez noticed the deputy’s body camera had fallen off, so she picked it up and started recording the arrest.

A section of the complaint titled “Arrival of Second Deputy Constable” alleged that Deputy Constable Jesse Estrada arrived on scene and jumped on top of Vasquez’s back, assuming he was a suspect. “Immediately, without asking anyone any questions”, he allegedly applied a choke hold to the man’s neck and throat, causing compression to the neck, throat, and chest.

The complaint further stated that Rafael was eventually able to mumble to Estrada, “I’m Buffalo”, prompting Estrada to release the choke hold. The summary alleged that Vasquez got up, appeared unsteady and bewildered, and struggled to breathe.

According to the complaint, he walked toward the front porch of a home, sat down, and collapsed to the ground a few seconds later.

Another section of the document alleged that Mrs. Vasquez and Vasquez, Jr. tried to administer first aid to Vasquez, but an officer from the Port Isabel Police Department who arrived minutes after the suspect’s arrest stopped both of them from performing first aid. The officer allegedly threatened to Tase them if they did so, the complaint stated.

“Neither of the two deputy constables or the two Port Isabel police officers at the scene offered Rafael any first aid as he lay on the ground struggling to breathe, other than calling an ambulance which arrived several minutes later…,” the summary stated.

According to the complaint, Vasquez died on Dec. 8, 2017 at 4:23 a.m. as a result of his injuries.

The complaint listed Pete Delgadillo, Cameron County Precinct 1 constable; Jesse Estrada, Cameron County Precinct 1 deputy constable; an unknown Cameron County deputy constable; Robert Lopez, Port Isabel chief of police; and two unknown Port Isabel police officers as respondents.

All respondents are being sued in both their individual and official capacities.

Updates in the state case filing prior to its removal to the federal system indicated that a motion was filed on behalf of Chief Lopez asking the court to dismiss the individual charges against him, citing the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA). A hearing was scheduled for Feb. 11, before the case’s transfer.

The document argued that Lopez acted within his duties and that the suit could have been brought against the City of Port Isabel under the TTCA. Lopez was unable to comment on the pending legal matter, referring questions to city hall.

Port Isabel’s City Attorney, Gilberto Hinojosa, said that the city will most likely move to dismiss the charges against Lopez and the two police officers listed in the complaint. “We were not part of the original arrest or the action that caused injury to the citizen,” he said on Monday.

Hinojosa noted that the complaint stated Port Isabel police officers arrived after the chokehold incident occurred and that they were involved in trying to get medical assistance to Vasquez.

On Monday evening, no updates had been filed in the case at the federal level. Daniel N. Lopez, Civil Litigation Counsel for the Cameron County Commissioners Court – Civil Legal Division, said in an email statement that “Cameron County, Constable Delgadillo, and the other County employees deny all allegations in the lawsuit. They will present their evidence and legal positions in court.”